Due out next week via the ever reliable and diverse cadre of artists that is Graveface Records, Lovesick is the towering monument that is Tennis System’s third LP. The band’s consistent member and brain trust Matty Taylor, has at long last found the proper bandmates to fuel his idiosyncratic musical mission. First found peddling their wares as an ear-piercing live proposition in DC, Tennis System have since traded coasts and put out two engaging full-lengths, those being 2011’s Teenagers and 2014’s Technicolour Blind.
On the heels of 2018’s P A I N EP, their impending full-length for new home Graveface Records (Whirr, Creepoid, Night School, and the masterful run of the two latest Appleseed Cast LPs), Tennis System arrives fully invigorated on what’s unquestionably their most fully realized offering to date.
Rounded out by Sam Glassberg on bass and Garren Orr; they’ve settled into a dense and melodious racket, as heart-rending and gorgeous as it is caustic and visceral. For touchstones, as we all tend to seek, think Starflyer 59’s melodic indulgences and Swervedriver’s propulsive scope all done within the framework of a stridently DIY punk ethos.
Much has been made of the Renaissance of all things shoegaze in the last half decade plus. Lest we lump them in with the newjacks, it begs to be said they've been refining their craft for the better part of a decade at this point. Follow me into the heart of one of the year’s best albums… Tennis System’s Lovesick.
Pardon the pun, but opener “Shelf Life” starts with a hellish cacophony. In what feels like being dropped into a conversation mid-sentence, the listener is instantly hit with the seamless convergence of Kevin Shields guitar histrionics and the clattering clack attack of a taut and tightly wound snare. Sneaky counter melodies sit knowingly beneath the maelstrom. The drums are absolutely enormous, pushing the honey glazed gauzy vocals even further into the ether. The downturn of the back half pairs a heavy dosage of first wave shoegaze with a bruising attack on the instruments themselves. Bolstered by a physical approach more akin to a death metal band, it feels as though a cavalry is descending upon their unfortunate gear.
As the once—ambient bends into a stuttering build, the beating they inflict is gorgeously cathartic. In much the way recent faves Elizabeth Colour Wheel, Slow Crush, and their friends in Ringo Deathstarr use their washy grooves as but a template for aggressive exploration of beauty's outer limits, this is neither straightforward nor predictable.
“Cut” is a glorious melange of discordant fuzz and the crushing tone that ushers in the track is devastating. There’s a dense and slithering bass riff that’s left isolated. Mirroring Producer Jack Shirley of Deafheaven fame’s work on the masterful Gouge Away LP, it feels lifted straight from Nirvana’s finest hour in “Lounge Act.” Lyrically, there’s a line pilfered straight from New Order but subverts the original line’s alienation into a couplet that’s far more morose and sorrowful.
Another one of the album’s strengths is its masterful sequencing. Third track “Alone” is surprisingly catchy melodic dose of true alt radio rock that, were the world a just place, would live on the radio. With a deliriously catchy vocal run, it’s not a million miles away from when Cave In set their antennas to the FM dial. More recently, similar territory was explored by Turnstile and Code Orange, whose “Moon” and “Bleeding in the Blur” respectively added another touchstone for properly marrying noise to a '90s backward glance. Tennis System seem perfectly capable and comfortable whether exploding into noisier terrain or laying down eternally memorable and marginally accessible bangers.
There’s a propulsive bent to the lightspeed jangle of guitars that beckons “Esoteric." It’s an ever hurtling, desperate white knuckle drive into oblivion prompted either by elation or resignation. There are cleverly crafted changes of pace sprinkled in that're befitting of such an ambiguously and emotional moment on the LP. Huge swaths of guitar that plays like the band is riding the waves that grace the cover of 1990’s gaze classic Nowhere. Much like Ride's genre signpost, there's something deeply resonant about their sonic squall.
"Deserve", though it starts with but a plaintively plucked and achingly beautiful guitar line, quickly melts into a crushing white wall of noise. The vocalist’s cadence vacillates between tightly hugging the melodies and defying them, clawing at them like life preservers. The repetition of “What Do I Deserve…” as sung ad infinitum into the abyss by Taylor, serves as a deeply satisfying moment of vulnerability that’s matched by their heaviest moment thus far.
Fitting that this looming gift of an LP be released not just on my birthday, but as summer prepares it’s final act. “Fall” is the perfect side one closer, it’s sound the fleeting moments of warmth before they’re swallowed whole by the magic of chill, leaves underfoot. They instantly capture the feeling of Summer’s magic unmet, a season that, while once pregnant with possibility, ultimately disappoints. It’s an unsettled and moody segue.
The midway point that is “Third Time” seemingly mimes the vinyl as it’s flipped or even the pensive moments as the cassette clicks over to side B. Intentionality aside, the album adheres to nothing but feels traditionalist in it’s split halves. Essentially a tour through their myriad talents within the faster realm, Tennis System excels in moments such as these… the instruments in glorious lockstep with each other, volleying back and forth. Driving music in the grand tradition of Mezcal Head, they manage tremendous and memorable hooks beneath an enormously lush framework.
“Rotting Out," though certainly not the soundtrack to your next Street Prowl session, tosses an added splash of tambourine to it’s opening salvo that mines territory similar to Seaweed, Superchunk's noisier detours, and a number of oft-overlooked bands from Chapel Hill in the verdant '90s. Per usual, the drumming lives as well inside the pocket as it does on walkabout. Both the flurries of tom at the song's entrance and the 4/4 pounding serve songs that are, at this point, piggybacking relentlessly atop each other. Taylor’s at last found a rhythm section that turns his agonizingly hopeful visions into ecstasy.
For those of us with a sweet tooth, there’s a world of difference between saccharine and sugar. In what is perhaps the most tender and open vocal performance on the album, there’s great attention paid to both their delicate nature and it’s wildling cousin brutality. Managing to walk the grey line between heavy handed and cryptically poetic,this dual nature pulls off the hazy romanticism of Turnover as much as it does the violently emotional Holy Fawn. In as much as it’s self-aware, it’s brazenly confident in it’s unknowing. Though you’re unlikely to catch them soloing mindlessly, the guitars are piercing and immediate despite the layers of distortion in which they’re buried. They’re clearly students of The Catherine Wheel Academy the silvery silk of their melodies are undeniable.
“Cologne” is an instrumental break that sensibly comes before the approaching emotional and sonic heft of the album’s final tracks. It approaches and bursts open like the break in storm clouds, ambling shakily downhill into mystery and welcome confusion. It feels utterly necessary and it’s shaken confidence is the core of the LP’s strongest attributes.
Eleventh track “Come Undone” starts with painfully stretched vocals laid over a subdued and minimalist beat, thus beginning what’s perhaps the album’s most varied track. After the stress and storm of the first minutes, there’s a moment of impossibly thick bass and unleashed, feral guitars. Glaringly unconcerned with genre, they plumb the depths of rock music at its basest desires in a way that doesn’t feel cloying. Instead, Tennis System plays like a group of confident and intrepid sonic adventurers.
Though lazily lumped in with a litany of dreampop acts, the songcraft on display throughout Lovesick is staggeringly adept, mature, and immediate. Accept no substitutes.
Closing track “Lovesick” is many things. Aside from possibly being a titular wink to My Bloody Valentine, it’s a slow burning treatise on the inevitability of willing disassociation that accompanies the blind plunge into love. Wisely nonspecific and vague, its nuanced take ultimately feels like the spiritual successor my favorite love song of all time: Hum’s “I Hate It Too.” The swaying rhythms are, essentially, hymns to our most natural altered state. Whether or not it’s elevating or demonizing the transformative nature of love is irrelevant. It’s a dirge of eclipses solar and lunar, of poles whose attraction leads to collision. As the pianos fade into the blur of unfinished sentences, the hope isn’t just for more songs. It’s for more time on earth to enjoy music.
Having recently wrapped up a run with label mates the Appleseed Cast, the lucky folks in LA can catch their album release show September 7th at The House of Machines alongside their friends in Milly, Spare Parts for Broken Hearts, and Glaare. If you've made it this far, you're clearly as on board as I am. Head to Graveface Records to snag a copy of the record. You’re welcome.
- Graveface Records (Vinyl, cassette, mp3)
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